Thursday, December 04, 2008

State and local transportation issues, part 1

I spent all day Wednesday at a a statewide conference on "Transportation Infrastructure: Establishing Public Policy Priorities" put on by Texas Lyceum at Reliant Center, with the objective of getting something substantive done at the upcoming legislative session in January. The turnout was impressive - several hundred I'd say. It was a mixed format of round-table "fishbowl" expert discussions and breakout sessions for participation, which I found to be a much more engaging format than the usual sequence of lone speakers with Powerpoint slides.

Rosanna Ruiz's Chronicle article on the event is here, including some quotes by yours truly (we randomly ended up a the same table).

Some observations from the day:
  • There was widespread agreement Texas has been chronically under-investing in transportation infrastructure, and the future trends look even worse if something isn't done, mainly around funding.
  • Recent hearings around the state indicated that people prefer taxes over tolls, which surprised me.
  • Our port has a mismatch problem: the water side is 24/7, but the land/truck side is generally only 16 hours/day because they can't operate when their destinations aren't open to receive the load. My (partial) solution? Determine containers that have long multi-hour drives to their destinations (around the state and beyond), and release those loads to trucks in the middle of the night. By the time they get where they're going, their destination store, factory, warehouse or whatever will be open.
  • "Inland ports" were a hot concept to move the congestion away from urban areas and the jobs to underdeveloped parts of the state. One idea from our table: a rail shuttle to move containers from the port into east Texas along the I-69 corridor. Facilities along there would transfer the loads to trucks, which would not go through any congested urban areas in Texas as they head to destinations in the eastern U.S. (as opposed to the cities trucks travel through when they come from south Texas or the port).
  • Are we going to be the first generation of Texans to not leave a legacy of generous infrastructure investments to our children?
  • "We talk like we want to be California, but we spend like Mississippi."
  • Far too many people are on the roads during rush hours that don't need to be (almost half aren't going to or from work). How to we shift that demand to off-peak? Telecom solutions? Road pricing solutions?
  • Mary Peters, the U.S. Dept of Transportation Secretary, made some great points about getting rid of the artificial barriers between pots of federal money (like roads vs. transit - let locals decide the best use), that we need move from arbitrary earmarks to strict cost-benefit performance metrics, and that the gas tax has a limited future as we move to higher mileage vehicles as well as those running on alternative fuels (like the coming wave of plug-in hybrids running on electricity for many miles/day). She mentioned a vehicle-miles-traveled (VMT) tax, but it sounds like a privacy (GPS tracking) or fraud (odometer rollbacks) nightmare to me, as well as discouraging investment in higher mileage cars (which the gas tax does).
  • She also mentioned that the congestion-priced lanes on CA-91 in Orange County have 40% better throughput (!!) than the free general-purpose lanes because they keep speeds up. I imagine we'll see similar metrics eventually for our new I-10 Katy Freeway managed lanes. I believe more of these lanes is the best and cheapest thing we can do to get more out of current freeway infrastructure as well as raise critically-needed funds for new infrastructure. With that kind of performance improvement, we should even be seriously considering switching over currently free general-purpose lanes to managed - after extensive public education of the benefits, of course.
That's enough for one post. Part 2 next week on financing and delivery of transportation infrastructure.

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At 10:10 PM, December 04, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, who decides who "needs" to be on the roads at *any* time? I'd say anyone out in rush hour traffic probably thinks they need to be there, by defintion. I know I'm only there when I "need" to pick up my nephew from school.


At 8:09 AM, December 05, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Inland Ports" -

The current transportation solution to this is Grand Parkway. I know, I know. It's the evil developers pushing this road. What some people don't know, is that TxDOT, the Port of Houston, and the trucking industry are heavily pushing the eastern half and southern portions of this loop.

A small section of the eastern half is open and free until early 2009 when the tolling will become active. It's the Houston region's most quietly built toll road. Probably because it was built by TxDOT in Chambers county which is not even in Houston's TxDOT district. It falls in Beaumont's District. The sole purpose of this road is to take truck traffic from the port of Houston east to I-10. When the full eastern half is built, the port will be able to get trucks efficiently to US 59 (I-69) and I-45 without going through urban areas.

The southern half will get trucks through to the port from the south.

I really like Mary Peter's suggestion that the state should chose how it's funding is distributed to it's modes of transportation. Think of the hundreds of millions of dollars that potentially METRO could get from the federal government that could serve a lot more people effectivly through highway improvements and port infrastructure.

At 6:44 PM, December 07, 2008, Blogger engineering said...

Some of the speakers were brilliant.
On M. Peter's comment "She also mentioned that the congestion-priced lanes on CA-91 in Orange County have 40% better throughput (!!) than the free general-purpose lanes because they keep speeds up." Not sure if she is comparing apples to apples. Her comment that there are $13 billion of ear mark funds waiting to be used was to be noted. That compare to TxDOT's annual budget of $8.5 billion.
Lastly, on her comment to give local governments more of the power on how to spend transport funds - why should states send money to the feds and then requested back. The federal highway system was finished over 10 years ago. The federal gas tax should be abolished and let states put their own transportation taxes.

At 10:48 PM, December 07, 2008, Blogger Brian Shelley said...

"The federal gas tax should be abolished and let states put their own transportation taxes."

Amen, Engineering.


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